Environmental storytelling sucks. Not the concept per se, but the way developers will often use it like a cudgel to show what’s happening in their worlds. The intent is to communicate something about the narrative or world without spelling it out for people, but what often ends up happening instead is that you’ll find graffiti or a static scene that feels so contrived that it actually breaks your immersion. One of the worst offenders is the Left 4 Dead games, where instead of feeling like organic worlds in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, you have graffiti in the safe rooms scrawled everywhere, revealing little pieces of the world at large in circumstances that feel entirely staged and artificial.
Graffiti is funny like that. It’s an environmental element that is specifically meant to be an artificial addition to a landscape, meant to be staged in a certain way. And yet it feels false when employed in games like Left 4 Dead. The scenario is all wrong. Actual graffiti has purpose beyond a winking nod to the player. It exists to have a message, explicit or otherwise. It’s about the mark they leave on the world, an attempt to have an effect on the world when that act can seem impossible otherwise.
Umurangi Generation is about the desperation of wanting to leave a mark on a world that’s on its way to ending. It’s about wanting to do something, even if it’s as futile as leaving a graffiti message that pushes back against the state of the world to no avail. And yet even though it may be futile, there’s still power in graffiti art, in asserting that yes, you’re here, and what’s important to you can be conveyed through your art.
The world of Umurangi Generation is also in the middle of a worldwide crisis, but it’s more of a slow-moving car wreck than a mad scramble for survival like in Left 4 Dead. You play as one of a group of teenage friends who are pretty much bystanders bearing witness to the world as it slowly but violently dies. They’re pretty much helpless to do anything about it, so they make graffiti art to vent their frustrations and make sense of their feelings as the world ends.
Māori developer Veselekov isn’t shy about who is responsible, though, and takes aim at colonialism throughout the game. The youth culture of Umurangi Generation is unapologetic about their indigenous roots, with te reo, the language of the Māori, even interspersed in the tutorial. It’s impossible to miss the Māori influence on all the art in the game.
Colonialism manifests in the world of Umurangi Generarion in two way, both of which are choking people’s way of life in different ways. The first is the presence of the blue bottles, which are a species of giant jellyfish-like beings that have taken up residence on the planet. At first, they’re only seen in their small versions scattered throughout the areas, but eventually will show up with bigger kinds that the UN are seen fighting against. But it’s the small ones that make the biggest impression on you. You’re told off the bat that you’re not to take pictures of them, as you’ll lose money when you do. But most striking is that they’re everywhere and everyone is just going about their day as if they weren’t. They’re invaders that have been normalized to a degree that everyone else is just dulled to their presence, benign until they aren’t, a clear parallel to the presence of colonialists in lands taken by force.
And then there’s the omnipresence of the UN, an organization that’s turned into a defense force against the kaiju that plague the world. But they’ve also proven themselves to be both a fascist and incompetent group that’s warped the lives of everyone across the world in the name of defending against the kaiju threat. They’re not seen as being very helpful, though, with hostility visible in pockets safely away from retaliation. This is the logical endpoint of colonialism, an ethos that only wants control and power. In the face of such a force, it’s easy to feel helpless.
What Veselekov realized is the simple fact that graffiti is there to be observed and is staged accordingly. Asking who the audience is is key to utilizing the form correctly. In the Left 4 Dead examples, the audience is solely you, the player. It’s a device to communicating something about the world in a very direct way past the fourth wall. But within the game itself, this art has no audience. In Left 4 Dead’s world, everyone is scrambling to get somewhere safe. The graffiti itself is in places where the player stops, ready made to be read by players and seemingly no one in the world itself.
The graffiti in Umurangi Generation, on the other hand, has clarity of purpose that other games’ graffiti doesn’t. Yes, it’s absolutely for the benefit of the player that the graffiti is there, but it’s also an action that the people of the game world can do when no action will do anything. It’s the cry of a generation that’s helpless to stop the ills of the world from swallowing it whole. It’s an act of defiance at the hopelessness of the situation, an assertation that the creators exist, that they matter. The graffiti art is a shout against apathy, signaling that this generation can do little, but that they’ll do all they can.
You’re definitely the audience in Umurangi Generation, but you’re not the sole reason for staging environmental storytelling. You’re a visitor in a world that can only cry out and watch the world sink into oblivion. That the main gameplay element of the game is taking pictures represents the final generation’s status as witnesses. And just as they’re witnesses to this world, you’re a witness to them, chronicling their pain, their struggles, and the awful effects that colonialism and neglect have had on them. True environmental storytelling happens when it really feels organic, part of the world. Realizing that the player should not be the center of the game world makes all the difference. The reason that graffiti art is in the world is bigger than you, the player. It’s expressions of pain, anger, or even joy in the midst of the world burning. People make graffiti art, and they should be centered. Anything else is disingenuous.